Objective Cheapness

Builds Upon: Supermarkets: The Illusion of Overchoice

When we say something is ‘cheap’ or ‘expensive,’ we usually mean by relative terms. A car is cheap if it’s cheap relative to other cars. Any item we purchase tends to be cheap or expensive relative to our personal income.
Yet there is no good way to measure the value of one’s purchases without an objective barometer.

Consider the candy bars sold at a grocery store checkout lane. Susceptible shoppers think “99 cents! That’s just pocket change. It’s cheap and I want a snack right now.”
Yet how does that ‘cheap’ candy bar measure up against actual food commodities?

Imagine going to the meat department at your local grocery store and seeing a snicker section in between the pork and the beef. How much per pound would a big lump of snicker bar cost? If we consider that it’s 99 cents just for a few ounces of snicker, it might very well be more expensive then beef brisket or even a mid-level steak.
Who would buy snicker at this imaginary deli? Probably no one. Candy is an inferior food that commands a premium price. Placed in this context, it’s obviously a colossal ripoff.

Yet most people haven’t equipped themselves with a way of measuring the true cheapness of an item. Change the packaging around a bit, use some psychological tricks and most people fall for it.

The impulse candy bar is just about the most minor of possible examples. Without an objective measure of cheapness, the consumer is the perpetual victim of the same few mind games every time they make a purchase. Over a lifetime, they waste countless thousands of dollars, especially when making critical decisions about schooling, housing, and transportation.

To assess anything properly we need a fundamental, essential expense by which all other expenses can be measured.
For me, all things are cheap or expensive in comparison to the most basic foodstuffs that keep people alive.
Things are objectively cheap or expensive as they compare to a pound of potatoes, rice, pasta, or flour.
Truly, not too many things we buy really are cheap.

Once we have a means of measuring, it becomes clear that many things that seemed affordable are in fact fantastically expensive.
This doesn’t mean we should live an ascetic lifestyle. But it does mean that we will have a true appreciation and appraisal of our wealth before we decide to sacrifice it in exchange for a good or service. It is a way of ceasing to judge value according to the reckoning of the mass society. It is a way to judge instead by the absolute value of a good or service.

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3 responses to “Objective Cheapness

  1. Good post! I got me thinking that the last thing that marketers want is for consumers to make rational decisions. As you said, packaging, psychological tricks, such as $1.99 instead of $2.00. My biggest pet-peeve is why would not they include sales tax into retail price.(I know why but something is wrong with it)

  2. The relative value of information and objects is something I grappled with for years as a freelance marketer.

    Much of the value delivered is paper thin, much of the problems solved by modern capitalism is irrelevant. Most people wouldn’t care if tomorrow, the brands they have been exposed too all of their lives, disappeared. They have no loyalty to them because the problems that they solve are irrelevant.

    The way I had to explained to me was that products come in two flavors: aspirin and roses.

    Roses flatter the ego and delight the senses. It’s a good hook and it’s what nearly every product imaginable thinks of doing.

    The other one, which doesn’t need to be marketed with as many soft benefits, is aspirin. When you solve someone’s problem, it creates loyalty. The harder and more painful (and we learn to bring out and enhance the pain before providing the solution) the problem, the greater the loyalty when it is solved. Most products that try this just end up greatly exaggerating the benefit, like how a spreadsheet will somehow secure you a promotion. It’s like expecting a diamond ring to bring you closer to a woman, even though she may be flattered it is only superficial.

    Most products are superficial like roses, few real aspirin products exist. This is despite the fact that we have so very many problems in the world. Either way the heart decides what value is, never the mind. The mind just helps you weigh and measure the outcomes.

    (Benjamin Franklin posited a different idea, that people should do you favors instead to gain their loyalty. This way they commit their own energy to the relationship and have something to lose. This is true and works better for people who don’t have any real problems. Helping people through real and painful problems does create loyalty.)

    • You’ve touched on the big flaw in all marketing philosophy, Eric.

      All marketing gurus, gamers, whoever justify themselves with something like:

      “We just connect people with their needs. We do a public service.”

      However, this is a weak rationalization to underpin an entire philosophy.

      Things that people truly need have this funny way of marketing themselves.

      Marketing gurus portray themselves as the ultimate pragmatists, but as you point out, they instead end up being just another party trying to distort reality in their favor.

      The very notion of an absolute value is antithetical to their profession and world view.

      Everything about them is dependent on absolute subjectivity.
      Who do marketers idolize most?: those who can sell nothing for something.
      And they justify this by pointing to the subjective value of that nothing.
      “If they perceive it as valuable, then they got what they paid for. We got paid. Everyone ends up happy.”

      For industrialized societies to ever move beyond self-destructive zero sum competition, it becomes necessary to understand the hollowness and bankruptcy of this type of thinking.

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